PRINT October 1993


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum. His “The Last American Dream,” on The Manchurian Candidate, was recently collected in Hiding in Plain Sight: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography, edited by Wendy Lesser (San Francisco: Mercury House).

  1. Michael Stipe, directed by Peter Care:

    “Man on the Moon” (Warner Bros.). This is the best video I’ve seen since Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—though formally there’s nothing unusual about it, just the standard pillaging of the last forty years of American independent cinema. The piece starts off with Michael Stipe striding across a western desert in a cowboy hat, lip-syncing his song about illusion and reality, identity as fact or choice, and the late comedian Andy Kaufman, who at times thought he was a professional wrestler or Elvis Presley. In black and white, split screens, grainy textures, overlit figures, double exposures, fades even within frames, and of course super-fast cutting are used smartly. Not even the way the design matches words to images (when Stipe sings about an asp, you see a snake; when he mentions “Mr. Darwin,” you see the pages of a human-evolution textbook flipping) is oppressive. A terrific feeling of empathy, of loss and regret, grows in the piece. The second time Kaufman rises up, like a ghost in the mix, in his Elvis outfit, you know Stipe loved the man.

    Stipe hitches a ride on a truck, which drops him, at dusk, at the Easy-Rest Diner (the lyrics say “truck stop”). The way Peter Care brings Stipe to the door is pure Bruce Conner: flashes are piled onto flashes—seemingly hundreds of cuts to move a man a fewsteps—and it’s as quietly thrilling here as it was in 1967, when Conner took you into Jay DeFeo’s studio with his film The White Rose. Stipe sits down at the bar and signals for a beer. The expression on his face as he does so (his modesty, his happiness to be in this place) is striking, but no setup for what happens next. The camera begins to move around the bar, picking up old people, young people, men, women, pool players, drinkers, people just standing around in this nameless western place: where they’re from. And every one of them is lip-syncing the words to “Man on the Moon.”

    There’s nothing new about this device; as a trick of self-glorification (“I’d like to teach the world to sing—my song”) it’s as old as MTV. It was used perhaps most famously, and certainly most obnoxiously, by Talking Heads in “Wild, Wild Life,” where a bunch of small-town types in David Byrne’s vanity film True Stories were trotted onto a stage to mouth snatches of the tune like contestants on The Gong Show. “Man on the Moon” takes place in a different world. Face to face, line by line, what you’re seeing and hearing comes across as ordinary conversation: somehow it seems as likely that the weathered old man in the cowboy hat would be saying “Man on the Moon” as “Gimme another one, Joe.” The tableau expands—begins to construct itself as a feeling, something shared, the way a song on a jukebox can change a room—and suddenly you realize you don’t want this to end. You begin to worry that it will—even though you’re not sensing the song nearing its end, you’re simply drawn into the bar, this intimate place, part of it.

    The cuts are not so fast now. You get to know the faces, the people. The warmth in the room is as physical as the sensation of a cold lifting. The room seems to be swirling, though it’s not, there are no more special effects; by this point it’s emotion that’s moving too fast to keep up with. And then in the midst of this fine conversation, this magical invocation of community in its smallest, most everyday dimensions, the camera gives up a second or two to a blonde woman, smiling to the person she’s talking to—not at the camera. The knowledge in that smile, a knowledge that’s superior to nothing, that assumes everyone in the room knows what she knows; the pleasure and confirmation as the woman puts her lips around “They put a man on the moon”—it’s as perfect a moment as you’ll find anywhere, though for you, watching this video, the moment will be somebody else saying the same thing.

  2. Heavenly:

    P.U.N.K. Girl (K Records, Box 7154, Olympia, WA 98507). A five-song ep that’s stronger than last year’s lp Le Jardin de Heavenly, and more playful: you can imagine Emma Thompson fronting this English band, even if you know it’s sweet-voiced Amelia Fletcher, joined by three men and one Cathy Rogers on vocals. Heavenly’s idea of play, though, is to pull the rug out from under you. “Hearts and Crosses” starts off in a lacy virgin’s bedroom, and the air is filled with flowers, angels, fantasies of true love (“How would it feel to hold him for real? To whisper ‘I love you’ and lean on his shoulder?”). The tone is sunny, confident, friendly, cool—like the Jamies’ 1958 hit “Summertime, Summertime.” This is classic pop, you’ve heard it forever—but never, it seems in the moment, with such convincing delicacy. Then the tune breaks, and there’s a flat, spoken, rhymed narrative about date rape. It’s rough: “He bit her hard but never kissed her.” Fletcher’s voice never rises, and when the tune comes back, the tone hasn’t altered a bit from the opening—just the story, which is now about ruin, not betrayal so much as memories that can’t be erased.

  3. Garth Brooks

    “That Summer” (Liberty). Carefully written, arranged to highlight peaks and valleys, this country hit is recognizable in an instant even if you’ve only heard half of it once before. And as an entry in the hoary boy-loses-virginity-to-older-woman genre it doesn’t hedge on passion; the singer doesn’t learn how to be a man, he finds out there are things that can never be taken back. “I have rarely held another/When I haven’t seen her face” is the sort of confession the genre took shape to suppress.

  4. Annie Ernaux:

    Simple Passion, translated from the French by Tanya Leslie (Four Walls Eight Windows, $15). In 1974, after Aleksander Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize and was deported from the Soviet Union, Punch writer Alan Coren warned that despite the great man’s popularity with Paris’ revisionist intelligentsia, he would be unlikely to find a warm welcome in France. Reason: he had never written a novel that was (a) five million words long or (b) five thousand words long. Ernaux’s tale of a grownup, all-consuming love affair (all-consuming from the female narrator’s point of view, anyway) comes in at the low end of the scale: about eight thousand words. Yet in the short time she demands of a reader Ernaux can leave you as drained as an early Godard movie, and she shapes her story with Barthes-like notes sharp enough to start you thinking through the novels in your own life. As when the narrator speaks of “the cultural standards governing emotion which have influenced me since childhood (Gone with the Wind, Phèdre or the songs of Edith Piaf are just as decisive as the Oedipus complex).”

  5. John Heartfield:

    “Photomontages” (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 8 August, moving to Los Angeles County Museum, 7 October–2 January 1994). “This makes me nervous,” a friend said as we walked through a show dominated by Heartfield’s late-’20s–’30s antifascist agitprop, most of it made in Berlin, some of it made in Prague, in exile. It wasn’t hard to know what she meant. As Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels appeared in Heartfield’s collages—shouting and preening, mocked and tossing off mockery like spittle—they were not art subjects, not then and not now. They escaped the museum just like that. This was real speech about real things that actually happened—or that, because of Heartfield’s power, were actually happening. The pictures weren’t safe and the past wasn’t buried.

  6. Steve “Scarface” Williams:

    sound supervisor for Menace II Society, directed by the Hughes Brothers (New Line Cinema). Here and there in this film about not growing up in black Los Angeles, the sound made by ordinary movements—a car pulling up to a curb, a door closing, words coming out of a father’s mouth after he shoots a friend—is amplified all out of proportion to what’s on the screen. The sound isn’t merely loud, but slowed down, thickened, and inflated, as if it’s coming from somewhere else, from some off-screen prophet-beast whose threats and warnings don’t suffer language. The unnaturalness of the effect takes you right out of the movie, and what’s dramatized is the unnaturalness of the social order the movie is about.

  7. George Michael and Queen:

    “Somebody to Love,” from Five Live (Hollywood). Recorded at the Freddie Mercury tribute in April 1992, and as complete a validation of professionalism as you’d ever want to hear: going strictly by the book, Michael rings glory out of every note.

  8. Shaver:

    Tramp on Your Street (Zoo/Praxis). A drifter’s record—as Billy Joe Shaver appears on the cover, weathered and road-beaten, with long, stringy gray hair, he’s the tramp you see every day. Then he starts singing, taking the old outlaw-country voice away from its clichés; guitarist and son Eddy Shaver brings the songs as close to rock ’n’ roll as he can without crossing over. The music is ambitious social realism under a rainbow of religion—in the end, no more than muscle and heart.

  9. Pet Shop Boys:

    Very (EMI). Though Chris Lowe’s airy, bohemian dance rhythms again seem to suggest a salon more than a disco (nothing wrong with that), there’s a difference in Neil Tennant’s voice, and in the cadences he builds his words around. His naïveté—the assumed, artificial, self-protecting naïveté of someone who could too easily have given himself over to cynicism—is gone. Tennant no longer pretends to be surprised by things he ought to understand; at 39, he sounds tested.

  10. Dan Graham:

    Rock My Religion—Writings and Art Projects, 1965-1990, ed. Brian Wallis (MIT, $34.95). This handsome compendium of essays, attempts at collage narrative, and bonnes pensées is rooted almost wholly in the obvious. Scattering bits of wisdom from Walter Benjamin or the Frankfurt School like alms to the poor, Graham digs for signs of life in commodity culture, finds them in rock ’n’ roll, punk, and cinema, and trumpets his discoveries like the first white man pressing into the Dark Continent. Mixing blunt historical solecisms (the Puritans believed “the only possible way to overcome this Original Sin was through hard work”—sorry, it was predestination) with what might be called gestural criticism (faced with a subject, you wave at it), Graham seems committed to establishing one truth beyond doubt: he’s hip.